Ben Cohen and Billy Bean 'StandUp' at San Francisco Pride

The legendary athletes-turned-LGBT-icons speak with The Advocate about the widespread impact of the recent Supreme Court rulings on same-sex marriage, the future of out athletes in sports, and working to leave a legacy that drives cultural change.

BY Jase Peeples

July 05 2013 7:00 AM ET

Billy Bean (left) and Ben Cohen (right). Photo: Ryan Watkins, Courtesy The GA Voice 

Four years after he retired from playing professional baseball, Billy Bean became an instant icon for the LGBT community in 1999 when he publicly acknowledged he was gay. By coming out of the closet and sharing his story, the former Major League Baseball player shone bright as an example that LGBT people could be much more than the stereotypes used to confine us for generations.

Continuing the push for cultural change, Rugby World Cup champion Ben Cohen grabbed headlines around the globe when he announced he was retiring from rugby to focus on The Ben Cohen StandUp Foundation, which he founded to fight homophobia and bullying. Since then Cohen has become an LGBT icon in his own right as one of the most outspoken straight allies in sports championing LGBT equality.

In May of this year, Bean joined forces with Cohen by joining the StandUp Foundation as vice chairman. Shortly thereafter, the organization teamed up with Nike to cosponsor the company’s #BETRUE 2013 Pride campaign. In addition to offering a range of Pride-themed products, the sports brand also had a strong presence at the San Francisco Pride Festival last weekend. Nike also sponsored a “Glow Run” on the evening of June 28, when Bean and Cohen ran side by side with more than 150 people decked out in Nike Pride shirts and glowing accessories though the city’s historic Castro district to kick off the weekend’s celebration.

While in San Francisco, the legendary athletes-turned-LGBT-icons spoke with The Advocate about their feelings on the landmark Supreme Court rulings regarding same-sex marriage, the future of out athletes in sports, and working to leave a legacy that drives cultural change.

The Advocate: Billy, you’ve gone from living in fear of having your sexuality discovered when you played baseball to celebrating the death of a major part of the Defense of Marriage Act at Pride in San Francisco. What have the past few days been like for you?
Billy Bean: It puts things in perspective for me from where I was when I stopped playing baseball and the way I looked at being gay then versus now. I think of how fortunate our community is, especially the young kids who are here celebrating Pride in San Francisco this weekend. It makes me nostalgic for my partner who passed away; it makes me think about how it’s so much easier today to invite your relationships into your family. I just can’t help but feel happy. It’s hard for people to understand the validation of everything you have hoped for and to just know that we’re a part of this world and we’re not just some invented behavior that so many people have tried to forecast on us. It’s just been a great feeling all around.

Billy, have any of your former teammates reached out to you since the rulings were announced?
Bean: Well, I’ve been out of baseball for a while, but I have a couple of guys I played with that I’m going to see when I get back home next week, and it’s going to be interesting to talk to them about it. The idea of them accepting me as a gay person and teammate was one thing, but me bringing a relationship into their life, a person who would be my partner, that was always something I was nervous about. As LGBT people, a lot of us are used to conforming to whoever we’re with and we’ve learned to suppress who we are, but the Supreme Court rulings have made it easier for us to really share who we are going forward.

Do you think the SCOTUS rulings will have an effect on the way people view LGBT athletes?
Ben Cohen: There’s no doubt it’s an historic moment and a step in the right direction to drive cultural change. I mean, we still haven’t gotten to this point in the U.K. For me, it’s very simple. I don’t care if somebody is gay or straight as long as they’re happy. But the Supreme Court’s decisions will help to educate the next generation. We’re all born with no hate; it’s what’s put into us that changes that. I think of when I drop my kids off at nursery, I see these young kids who don’t care about the color of your skin or who you love, they just want to run and play. It’s amazing to see the core values that have been taught to them and I think the Supreme Court’s rulings are a huge step towards furthering the education of how the next generation will treat one another.

Billy Bean: I think the conversation is out there in so many ways now. Ultimately, the dream for all of us is to put this conversation behind us, because we’re not asking for any special privileges. I always say it’s ironic because playing sports is the most conservative thing that we, the LGBT community, wants to do, and it causes the biggest reaction from our counterparts. I think the Supreme Court’s rulings will help in some ways, but the truth is, that journey is going to be different for each individual who comes out. We’ve got to continue to educate administrators, coaches, teachers, and students to allow a consistent dialogue that it’s OK to be who and what you are. Because an athlete or a student who is allowed to be who they truly are is going to be the best they can be.

Billy, if LGBT civil rights were as evolved in 1995 as they are today, do you think you would’ve continued in your career as a professional baseball player?
Bean: A thousand percent yes. There was no avenue for me. Nobody was even on the Internet yet. It’s mind-boggling to see the resources that are available to LGBT youth today, and it’s great to see how much more confident they are because of it. I’m glad my journey allowed me to be a part of those who have passed the baton that has allowed us to get to this day. But if I even knew 1% of what I know about myself now, I would still be playing baseball.

Ben, you left professional sports to start the StandUp Foundation. As someone who’s been working to fight bullying of LGBT youth, what have the past few days been like for you?
Cohen: Seeing what’s happened over the past couple of days has been wonderful, and I’m glad I got to be in America at the time to see it. I think we’re at a tipping point in not only educating youth, but leaving a legacy to educate others down the line as well.

You’re both here supporting Nike’s #BETRUE Pride campaign. What’s it been like seeing one of the biggest sports brands embrace the LGBT community in such a big way?
Cohen: It’s fantastic to see the biggest sports brand in the world embrace the LGBT community and embrace this moment, because ultimately sports shouldn’t discriminate. But unfortunately it does. To see a brand like Nike work to break down barriers and say athletes should be judged on their talent, not the color of their skin or hair, their size, or who they are is a wonderful thing. It’s been great to have their support and for them to work together with the StandUp Foundation on the #BETRUE campaign.

Bean: It’s been great because you could have a million LGBT people talking about inclusiveness, but just to have one commercial from Nike during the Super Bowl or dedicating a part of their brand to acknowledging that every competitor has the same value no matter what diversity you bring, it moves the conversation into the mainstream with 10 times more impact. So for the StandUp Foundation to have the opportunity to work with Nike is a dream come true.

The two of you were involved in Nike's #BETRUE Pride Glow Run though San Francisco’s historic Castro district last night. Knowing that the Castro was the very spot where Harvey Milk opened Castro Camera and helped organize what became the modern face of the LGBT civil rights movement in America, how did that feel for you?
Bean: It was certainly emotional for me. I remember when I was a player in the closet and would take a cab through the Castro just to see what it looked like, but I was too afraid someone would recognize me to get out. But on the run, it was amazing to feel the inclusiveness and the love of our community there. I didn’t realize this until I came out, but the LGBT community just accepts people for who they are, and I felt that while we were running through the Castro. There wasn’t any identity to our group except for the #BETRUE T-shirts we were wearing and suddenly people were high-fiving and cheering us on. Immediately there was this cohesion, and feeling the energy and inclusiveness of the neighborhood was amazing. It was a big deal for me to be there just a couple of days after such a historic ruling, and it will always remain a very special memory for me.

What do you think Harvey Milk would say if he was here today?
Bean: Maybe this was the vision he dreamed of all along. I think the things that would make Harvey happiest would be to know LGBT people are living their lives today. To see the smiles on the faces of people who know they can come out and stay in the towns they come from. To see parents involved with their kids. To know we can go many places to meet other LGBT people, not just gay bars, dark alleys, and the other things that were the limited choices for us in the ’60s. I hope he’s looking down on us today and is smiling at the progress we’ve made.  

Watch the 1999 20/20 interview in which Billy Bean came out below.

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